The Next Leader Who Could Stick It to China

The Next Leader Who Could Stick It to China

By Ralph Jennings

Image #: 13660468 TAIPEI, Taiwan - Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party, is surrounded by young supporters assembled via Facebook in Taipei on March 23, 2011, as she expresses her resolve to win the island's presidential election. Kyodo /Landov


Politics in Taiwan are heating up as it negotiates its relationship with its behemoth neighbor — and the future of its democracy. 

By Ralph Jennings

After a new chairman was appointed this year by Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party, his rival decided to send some flowers. And a warning: “Heavy responsibilities, long road ahead,” said the withering card, from Tsai Ing-wen.

And she was only getting started. Later that day, Tsai chased the flowers with a scathing press release about the foibles of the ruling Nationalists, including its little “ill-gotten asset” problem, and urged “more central government transparency.”

If world leaders are hoping China will work out a political unification deal with its frenemy Taiwan, then it’d better not be betting on Tsai, the 58-year-old, headline-grabbing leader of Taiwan’s opposition party — and presumptive 2016 presidential candidate. Whether it’s a decorous — if cutting — response to the Nationalist Party (KMT), or her consternation over her country’s growing economic ties with the behemoth to the west, Tsai is not the Taiwanese leader China is hoping for. The question is whether she’ll ever have the power to do anything about it.

“Although she’s not the loud, aggressive type of politician the party had been used to for many years, she came in with a new style of pragmatism and unity,” says Hsiao Bi-khim, a legislator and a personal adviser since 2008. For now, Tsai is gaining traction. In November, her Democratic Progressive Party won a surprise landslide in local elections, ousting the Nationalists from nine seats, and now the DPP has its best chance in 15 years to win the presidency, observers say. 

Mainland China casts a massive shadow over tiny Taiwan, which has a population of about 23 million. Each has claimed to be the real China since the 1940s, when the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War and the Nationalists fled to their little island 100 miles off the coast of Fujian province. Countries that refuse to recognize each other tend not to get along, of course, and relations between China and Taiwan were long frozen. But relations have thawed since 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou, of KMT, began talks with Beijing. Now Taiwan relies on China as its trading partner — China is the premier destination for its exports — and a place for investment dollars. Beijing wants to parlay the economic ties into political dialogue, and eventual reunification. But most Taiwanese oppose that goal and see it as a threat to their democracy. 

The KMT has branded her an “independence extremist,” but if she actually supports independence, she has not said so in public.

Tsai and her party have capitalized on citizens’ desire to remain independent — “trying to keep her distance from China to appeal to voters,” says William Sharp, professor and author of Random Views of Asia From the Mid-Pacific. The KMT has branded her an “independence extremist,” but if she actually supports independence, she has not said so in public. China has too much economic power to alienate it, and the United States, historically an informal ally of the island, would prefer not to step in. “She clearly has to not roil relations with either Washington or Beijing, and avoid any suggestion of advocating independence,” Sharp says. 

For now, Tsai walks carefully. She insists her party “would intend to continue having quality dialogue” with China, as she told voters at a press conference last year, and, while arguing Taiwan should negotiate via the World Trade Organization instead of with China directly, she supports trade deals. And of course China is not the only issue in the impending election. Tsai has also talked up more support for middle-class Taiwanese and for the youth, as well as raising standards of living outside the capital, Taipei. 

The unmarried native of a small town in southern Taiwan, Tsai has said she imagined being an academic, not a politician, and her CV bears her out. After getting a law degree in Taiwan, she earned a master’s at Cornell Law, and then a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. She returned to Taiwan and taught, but in the early 1990s, she was tapped for a series of government positions — by none other than the KMT. In 2000, she began talking leadership positions in the DPP, and in 2012, she became the first female presidential nominee in Taiwan.

Back then, she lost to Ma, 51 to 45 percent. Next year? She may face none other than Eric Chu, the KMT head who received last month’s now-withering floral delivery.